Who is on the plum tree?
Doug begins training local staff in PA (Participatory Appraisal) in earnest. His staff will be made up of students and local community workers, some of whom will continue to work for the programme after Doug leaves and; thereby, ensure continuity and grow local experience of coping with emergency.
Participatory Appraisal is a research methodology developed to make more accurate field assessments. In the past, agencies might send in people from outside to put together questionnaires designed to eke information out of local people. This method of gleaning essential information was found to be inefficient; people do not like answering questions. People are naturally suspicious of outsiders, especially those perceived to be in authority.
The questioner comes from a totally different background and paradigm and will not know how to ask the ‘right’ questions that will provoke the ‘right’ kind of information. In essence, the poorest of the poor fall through the cracks, as they are usually the ones most hidden from society, struggling to eke out an existence, usually unavailable for answering questions. Information gleaned this way was found to be ineffective. The reality of what was perceived by ‘Head Office’ based in a first world city differed hugely for the distant reality of remote and inhospitable, starved and parched parts of the world.
Participatory Appraisal involves people. It does what is says on the tin: encourages people to participate. It has been found that when there is ownership of an idea, or calls to action at a grass root level, community programmes are usually successful. Local communities everywhere are suspicious of top-down hierarchical imposition of outside solutions based on lack of awareness of natural, social infrastructure and mores. In PA, locals participate more; it is ‘their’ solutions we are interested in finding out. After all, these people live amongst the harshest conditions on the planet and are amazingly resilient. Badly needed answers should always emerge through ‘local knowledge.’
PA employs the use of all sorts of practical tools to win relevant and essential information. The use of such ‘tools’ suit more tactile, oral traditions. Piling stones is used, for example, in wealth-ranking, instead of asking for numbers, which would make eyes roll and instantly put people en guard. Discerning the worst hit areas is established through mapping – often drawing in the sand; as how do you tell someone to turn left at an acacia fifty miles away when there is no sense of measurement in miles? Locals know every grain of sand, every tree and surviving bush. Their lives depend on possessing exceptional spacial awareness.
Doug will train his team in how to do this with local interest groups: women’s groups, local chiefs, primary health care workers and myriad other community groups within visible badly hit areas. The community will tackle their starvation together with the right kind of help from all of us.
From this in-depth assessment, Doug will be able to ascertain the situation and its severity. It will give the agency an idea as to how many more households need help. It will help determine how much food to give each household. It will also look at coping strategies that households are using to find food; for example, men are leaving their families and going to other countries to earn money. This means that they will not be there to cultivate their fields. This will mean even less food. Also, women, who already have more than enough to do, take on men’s work, grinding maze for payment in husks, which they then feed their children. All these elements make the poverty-trap and starvation worse, as people struggle against the odds to feed their families.
The initial assessment will give Doug and his team more up to date information, so as to be able to write accurate reports for donors in a bid for sufficient funding. It means the true cost of recovery can be assessed and money be spent on exactly the right things. The assessment will also take into consideration the Mali refugees fleeing the civil war and pouring into Niger. Finally, the assessment will let the team know how the people feel about what is being done for them and what future aid they will need. For example, money might be used to bring the men home and pay them to work their own fields. Basically, Doug will be looking at ways to help them build on positive coping mechanisms and strengthening local ability to cope with droughts in the future. Drought in this region will worsen. Climate Change is a reality. Dealing with starvation is a holistic problem, and it belongs to all of us.
The PA approach is a mixture between good development practice and emergency aid. It is never enough to set up feeding stations as the problems always return. Humanitarian practitioners have long since moved away from the idea of ‘charity’ to that of empowerment and participation, building on natural human resilience to overcome adversity, using local ingenuity with communities working together to overcome collective problems. These days, the focus is on development rather than knee-jerk sentimental momentary reaction to, ‘poor, starving babies in Africa.’
Having said that, danger is real and imminent – a ticking time-bomb to which we must find not only instant humanitarian solutions, but empowering, developmental ones also.